Fresh Caught Fish: Top 10 Living Male Religious Poets

An osprey hunting down a fresh catch last Sunday at Alki Beach, West Seattle.

An osprey hunting down a fresh catch last Sunday at Alki Beach, West Seattle.

The last installment of this blog broached Paul Elie’s claim that fiction has lost its faith. Elie’s attack seemed to limit itself (wisely?) to the novel. It’s possible he didn’t think poetry has lost its faith. My response also went against the grain of Rachel Held Evans and her claim that Christians must assimilate because they have fallen off the cliff of respectable mainstream intellectual culture.

Tracy's The Analogical Imagination is the best place to start for a theology of the literary arts.

Tracy’s The Analogical Imagination is the mandatory starting place for anyone who wants to reflect upon the theological implications of the literary arts. It’s a contemporary classic.

Paul Elie probably meant to exclude poetry from his accusations of faithlessness, because it took me several hours last night to whittle down the list of poets who write from within a religious imagination. Their confessional identities vary from Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Lutheran, and several other denominations. You will find among them winners of the following awards: Nobel, Pulitzer, T.S. Eliot, several PEN Faulkner awards, and so on.

These are not obscure figures by any stretch of the imagination. In other words, the head ain’t rotting and the fish is fresh.

I’d like to give you a taste with some representative poems (or fragments) from each one of these writers. Tomorrow we’ll take up the novelists, who, as you’ll see, contrary to Elie’s claims, are legion.

By the way, most of these writers were previously featured in IMAGE Journal, which is consistently a top five American literary journal in terms of circulation.

Nota Bene: The links given with each poet’s name land upon their prose collections. The ones included with the name of the collections whose stunning pictures grace this post land upon these very poetry collections. Please remember to follow the unique links featured in this post.

"Filtering the cruder light, he has endured,  A feature for our regard; and will keep;  Of worldly purity the stained archetype."

“…Filtering the cruder light, he has endured,
A feature for our regard; and will keep;
Of worldly purity the stained archetype…”

Geoffrey Hill from the Broken Hierarchies

“In Piam Memoriam”

1

Created purely from glass the saint stands,
Exposing his gifted quite empty hands
Like a conjurer about to begin,
A righteous man begging of righteous men.

2

In the sun lily-and-gold-coloured,
Filtering the cruder light, he has endured,
A feature for our regard; and will keep;
Of worldly purity the stained archetype.
3

The scummed pond twitches. The great holly-tree,
Emptied and shut, blows clear of wasting snow,
The common, puddled substance: beneath,
Like a revealed mineral, a new earth.

“…Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.”

Wendell Berry from the New Collected Poems

from “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

…Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

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“…For even the godless feel something in a church, / A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is? / A trembling unaccounted by their laws, / An ancient memory they can’t dismiss…”

Dana Gioia from Pity the Beautiful

from “The Angel With a Broken Wing”

…I broke my left wing in the Revolution
(Even a saint can savor irony)
When troops were sent to vandalize the chapel.
They hit me once—almost apologetically.For even the godless feel something in a church,
A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?
A trembling unaccounted by their laws,
An ancient memory they can’t dismiss.There are so many things I must tell God!
The howling of the dammed can’t reach so high.
But I stand like a dead thing nailed to a perch,
A crippled saint against a painted sky.

 

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“…poor thing, one is tempted
to say, so transformed
by its contact with you
is everything–“

Franz Wright from God’s Silence

“Transformation”

It gets late early now
This is
when I like to visit
you at the top of your hidden
still green stairway, holy
Mother with the downcast
eyes as a girl of sixteen
almost unnoticed the right bare foot pinning
the serpent with the one-
leafed little apple in its jaws
poor thing, one is tempted
to say, so transformed
by its contact with you
is everything–

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“…Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.”

Adam Zagajewski from Without End

“Try To Praise The Mutilated World”

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

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“…Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition; / like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete / with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?…”

Les Murray from Learning Human

Poetry And Religion

Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture

into the only whole thinking: poetry.
Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words
and nothing’s true that figures in words only.

A poem, compared with an arrayed religion,
may be like a soldier’s one short marriage night
to die and live by. But that is a small religion.

Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;
like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete
with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?

You can’t pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn;
you can’t poe one either. It is the same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,

fixed centrally, we call it a religion,
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror

that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry

or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent,
as the action of those birds – crested pigeon, rosella parrot –
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.

9780374526788

“…The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open…

Seamus Heaney from Opened Ground

from “Clearances”

…In the last minutes he said more to her
Almost than in their whole life together.
‘You’ll be in New Row on Monday night
And I’ll come up for you and you’ll be glad
When I walk in the door . . . Isn’t that right?’
His head was bent down to her propped-up head.
She could not hear but we were overjoyed.
He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened…

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“…these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.”

Scott Cairns from Compass of Affection“Possible Answers to Prayer”
Your petitions—though they continue to bear

just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,

relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.

Your repentance—all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.

Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—

these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

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Paul Mariani from Epitaphs for the Journey

“Quid Pro Quo”

Just after my wife’s miscarriage (her second
in four months), I was sitting in an empty
classroom exchanging notes with my friend,
a budding Joyce scholar with steelrimmed
glasses, when, lapsed Irish Catholic that he was,
he surprised me by asking what I thought now
of God’s ways toward man. It was spring,

such spring as came to the flintbacked Chenango
Valley thirty years ago, the full force of Siberia
behind each blast of wind. Once more my poor wife
was in the local four-room hospital, recovering.
The sun was going down, the room’s pinewood panels
all but swallowing the gelid light, when, suddenly,
I surprised not only myself but my colleague

by raising my middle finger up to heaven, quid
pro quo, the hardly grand defiant gesture a variant
on Vanni Fucci’s figs, shocking not only my friend
but in truth the gesture’s perpetrator too. I was 24,
and, in spite of having pored over the Confessions
& that Catholic Tractate called the Summa, was sure
I’d seen enough of God’s erstwhile ways toward man.

That summer, under a pulsing midnight sky
shimmering with Van Gogh stars, in a creaking,
cedarscented cabin off Lake George, having lied
to the gentrified owner of the boys’ camp
that indeed I knew wilderness & lakes and could,
if need be, lead a whole fleet of canoes down
the turbulent whitewater passages of the Fulton Chain

(I who had last been in a rowboat with my parents
at the age of six), my wife and I made love, trying
not to disturb whosever headboard & waterglass
lie just beyond the paperthin partition at our feet.
In the great black Adirondack stillness, as we lay
there on our sagging mattress, my wife & I gazed out
through the broken roof into a sky that seemed

somehow to look back down on us, and in that place,
that holy place, she must have conceived again,
for nine months later in a New York hospital she
brought forth a son, a little buddha-bellied
rumplestiltskin runt of a man who burned
to face the sun, the fact of his being there
both terrifying & lifting me at once, this son,

this gift, whom I still look upon with joy & awe. Worst,
best, just last year, this same son, grown
to manhood now, knelt before a marble altar to vow
everything he had to the same God I had had my own
erstwhile dealings with. How does one bargain
with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups
the ante each time He answers one sign with another?

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“…A feeling as if crowds drew through the streets / in blindness and anxiety on the way toward a miracle, / while I invisibly remained standing…”

Tomas Tranströmer from The Great Enigma

“Kyrie”

Sometimes my life opened its eyes in the dark.
A feeling as if crowds drew through the streets
in blindness and anxiety on the way toward a miracle,
while I invisibly remained standing.

As the child falls asleep in terror
listening to the heart’s heavy tread.
Slowly, slowly until morning puts its rays in the locks
and the doors of darkness open.

=======================

Eleison.

It was intellectually (I had to eliminate so many writers I love), physically (the whole process took a long time), and emotionally (since these poems hit so close to the heart) exhausting to select these poems. I hope you do enjoy them. May they spur you on to read more of these writers. Tomorrow we tackle the novelists!

The fist installment in this series was “A Fish Rots From the Head Down” and there is now one on living novelists here (quite a diverse bunch, wouldn’t you say?).

For other Cosmos The In Lost posts on poetry look here and throughout the blog.

Previous Top 10 lists from this blog can be found here.

Please consider donating some funds through the home page of this blog (upper right hand corner).

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Famous Atheists Who Weren’t Atheists: Sartre’s Crossover

This story will leave you confused.

This story will leave you confused.

Almost everyone will agree that Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is rightfully recognized as a major figure of 20th century atheism.  Fewer people will agree about his stature as a philosopher.  Even fewer people will testify to the staying power of his novels and plays, although he still inspires some good poetry written against his philosophy.

However, it’s still not general knowledge that Sartre was not only unfaithful to Simone de Beauvoir, but also to atheism.  With the help of his secretary Benny Levy (no not that one) Sartre wandered into Judaism late in life.  And so the late-late Sartre said things like these:

“The Jew lives. He has a destiny. The finality towards which every Jew moves is to reunite humanity . . . It is the end that only the Jewish people [know] . . . It is the beginning of the existence of men for each other.”

Edward Said had an encounter with the Sartre-Levy duo and wasn’t entirely impressed:

“Lévy (then still known as Pierre Victor) seemed to Said to be: ‘a sort of station master, among whose trains was Sartre himself. Aside from their mysterious interactions at the table, he and Victor would occasionally get up; Victor would lead the shuffling old man away, speak rapidly at him, get an intermittent nod or two, then the pair would come back.’ When Sartre made a platitudinous closing statement that failed to mention such burning issues as the Palestinians, disputed territories or Israeli settlements, Said assumed it had been written by ‘the egregious Victor’ himself.”

Read more about Sartre’s Judaism here.

Just to make things even more confusing, carnivaleseque, and Rabelaisian, Sartre wrote a Christmas play, in which he gushed about Jesus, when he was interned in a German POW camp.

 

Sartre walking away from atheism.

Sartre walking away from atheism.

 

  

 

The Blogs of Others: Beauty’s Vengeance

My friend Anders liked these essays so much he now has a tattoo with the title on his arm.  Be careful about what books you give to others.

My friend Anders liked these essays so much he now has a tattoo with the title on his arm. Be careful about what books you give to others.

As Adam Zagajewski advised in a poem I posted here.

. . . Only in the beauty created
by others is there consolation,
in the music of others and in others’ poems.
Only others save us .  .  .

The first bit of savings I would like to pass on comes from Sophie  Lippiatt’s blog “Something for a Rainy Day.”  It’s an entry entitled “Beauty.”  Here’s a sample:

“The instinct to pursue and perceive beauty in ourselves and other people (as well as in the world around us) is as natural, ancient, and positive an instinct as the earth itself. It helps us to empathise and connect with the outside world, and to promote justice and truth in freedom and love. Beauty, when understood in the limited and damaging sense that our culture currently understands it, is a dangerous and terrible thing that traps men and women into cycles of despair, eating disorders, and self abuse. It is a very good and noble thing to reject this and to try to change it, but I, for one, am not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater in the fight against misconceptions and misrepresentations of beauty in the media by turning against beauty altogether. I believe that beauty is worth the fight. After all, beauty, when understood in its right and fullest sense, just might help to save the world.”

DSCN8986

One of my many pictures of Warsaw brutal.

Sophie’s thoughts about brutalizing architecture earlier in the post really struck a chord with me.  I did not grow up in the beautiful environs of Oxford.  I grew up around the brutalized architecture of postwar Warsaw, which could easily out-brutalize the most brutalized neighborhoods of Manchester.  To me Warsaw is the architectural equivalent of a botched abortion.  I like to think of myself as not-so-secretly Krakovian.

Warsaw after WWII: not much promise for beauty there.

Warsaw after WWII: not much promise there.

On the other hand, Scott Dodge at Καθολικός διάκονος emphasizes the dangerous side of beauty:

“One of the things Pasolini that is palpable in Mama Roma is the desolation that results from the lack of beauty, the deleterious effect it has on us, assaulting our humanity. This brings me back to beauty and our need for it. The late John O’Donohue, in his book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, observed, ‘We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the need of our soul.’ He goes on to note that, culturally, we live an age of the ugly. This last observation caused him to turn to Hans Urs Von Balthasar, specifically to Von Balthasar’s theological aesthetic [the following passage is from the first volume of The Glory of the Lord]:

Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man… Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.”

eckberg dolce

Ekberg in La Dolce Vita is not gratuitous at all if you follow the links.

Finally, a reminder from Adam Zagajewski:

“Moment”

Clear moments are so short.
There is so much more darkness. More
ocean than terra firma. More
shadow than form.

Adam Zagajewski | In the Beauty Created By Others

Image

Zagajewski, Rosman, Hirsch (May 2005)

Early in the morning I’m grading papers at the Crossroads mall in Bellevue. It’s delightful to watch the light filter in and settle upon the heads of people standing in line at the food court. It reminds me of the lines,  The others are not hell, / if you see them early, with their / foreheads pure, cleansed by dreams.” The brackets below are all mine and suggest possible influences and/or interesting connections to Zagajewski’s poem.

“In the Beauty Created By Others”

Only in the beauty created
by others is there consolation, [Schopenhauer]
in the music of others and in others’ poems.
Only others save us, [von Balthasar]
even though solitude tastes like
opium [Marx]. The others are not hell, [Sartre]
if you see them early, with their
foreheads pure, cleansed by dreams [not Freud].
That is why I wonder what
word should be used, “he” or “you.” Every “he”
is a betrayal of a certain “you” but
in return someone else’s poem
offers the fidelity of a sober dialogue [Buber].*

*That’s a lot to pack into a small space, isn’t it?  That’s what makes poetry so unique.

If this has piqued your interest, don’t miss the compendium of Zagajewski posts at The Book Haven.